1 Ref. Ares(2015) /05/2015 User guide to the SME definition Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs
2 DISCLAIMER This SME User Guide serves as general guidelines for entrepreneurs and other stakeholders when applying the SME definition. It does not have any legal force and does not bind the Commission in any way. Commission Recommendation 2003/361/EC, as published in the Official Journal of the European Union L 124, p. 36 of 20 May 2003, is the sole authentic basis for determining the conditions regarding qualification as an SME. This guide contains: ààdetails and explanations of the SME definition which took effect on 1/1/2005. ààa model declaration form that individual companies may complete when applying to SME support schemes in order to establish their SME status. Cover picure: Gettyimages Picures: Thinkstock Europe Direct is a service to help you find answers to your questions about the European Union Freephone number (*): (*) The information given is free, as are most calls (though some operators, phone boxes or hotels may charge you). More information on the European Union is available on the Internet (http://europa.eu). Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2015 ISBN doi: / (print) ISBN doi: / (online) European Union, 2015 Reproduction is authorised provided the source is acknowledged. Printed in Belgium Printed on elemental chlorine-free bleached paper (ECF)
3 TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION WHY A EUROPEAN SME DEFINITION? THE OBJECTIVES OF THIS GUIDE APPLYING THE SME DEFINITION AN OVERVIEW OF THE SME IDENTIFICATION PROCESS STEP 1: AM I AN ENTERPRISE? STEP 2: WHICH CRITERIA NEED TO BE CHECKED AND WHAT ARE THE THRESHOLDS? (ARTICLE 2) STEP 3: WHAT DO THESE CRITERIA MEAN? Criterion 1: Staff headcount (Article 5) Criteria 2 and 3: Annual turnover and balance sheet total (Article 4) STEP 4: HOW DO I CALCULATE THESE DATA? Am I an autonomous enterprise? (Article 3.1) Am I a partner enterprise? (Article 3.2) Am I a linked enterprise? (Article 3.3) CONCLUSION EXAMPLES BACKGROUND TO THE CURRENT SME DEFINITION AND USER GUIDE GLOSSARY ANNEXES TEXT OF THE RECOMMENDATION MODEL DECLARATION FORM
5 USER GUIDE TO THE SME DEFINITION 3 The category of micro - small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is made up of enterprises which employ fewer than 250 persons and which have an annual turnover not exceeding 50 million euro, and/or an annual balance sheet total not exceeding 43 million euro. Extract of Article 2 of the Annex of Recommendation 2003/361/EC INTRODUCTION Nine out of every 10 enterprises is an SME, and SMEs generate 2 out of every 3 jobs. A New Boost for Jobs, Growth and Investment is the first priority of Commission President Juncker Jobs, growth and investment will only return to Europe if we create the right regulatory environment and promote a climate of entrepreneurship and job creation. We must not stifle innovation and competitiveness with too prescriptive and too detailed regulations, particularly when it comes to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are the backbone of our economy, creating more than 85% of new jobs in Europe and we have to free them from burdensome regulation. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission SMEs: the engine of the European economy Micro - small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the engine of the European economy. They drive job creation and economic growth, and ensure social stability. In 2013, over 21 million SMEs provided 88.8 million jobs throughout the EU. Nine out of every 10 enterprises is an SME, and SMEs generate 2 out of every 3 jobs. SMEs also stimulate an entrepreneurial spirit and innovation throughout the EU and are thus crucial for fostering competitiveness and employment. Identifying genuine SMEs SMEs come in many different shapes and sizes; however, in today s complex business environment they may have close financial, operational or governance relationships with other enterprises. These relationships often make it difficult to precisely draw the line between an SME and a larger enterprise. The SME definition is a practical tool designed to help SMEs identify themselves so that they can receive the full support of the EU and its Member States. Given their importance to Europe s economy, SMEs are a major focus of EU policy. The European Commission aims to promote entrepreneurship and improve the business environment for SMEs, thereby allowing them to realise their full potential in today s global economy.
6 4 WHY A EUROPEAN SME DEFINITION? One of the main objectives of the SME Recommendation is to ensure that support measures are granted only to those enterprises that genuinely need them. The SME definition, therefore, applies to all policies, programmes and measures that the European Commission develops and operates for SMEs. It also applies to those kinds of State Aid where there are no ad hoc guidelines applicable. 1 Deciding whether or not a company is an SME is not as simple as one might think, however. 1 Not all State Aid rules adhere to the strict interpretation of the SME definition. Some are directly based on it, others only apply the SME definition in part, and there are specific guidelines that apply in certain cases. It is therefore always necessary to carefully check the respective legal basis in case an enterprise receives State support. What EU support exists for SMEs? For an overview of the main funding opportunities available to European SMEs, please visit: Size isn t everything In determining whether or not an enterprise is an SME, the enterprise s size (employees, turnover and balance sheet total) is not the only factor that should be taken into account. In fact, an enterprise can be very small in these terms, but if it has access to significant additional resources (e.g. because it is owned by, linked to or partnered with a larger enterprise) it might not be eligible for SME status. For enterprises with a more complex structure, a case-by-case analysis may therefore be required to ensure that only those enterprises that fall within the spirit of the SME Recommendation are considered SMEs. SME vs. Non-SME: the main criteria If an enterprise has access to significant additional resources it might not be eligible for SME status. SIZE Employees Turnover Balance sheet total AND RESOURCES Ownership Partnerships Linkages
7 USER GUIDE TO THE SME DEFINITION 5 Helping to avoid competitive distortion In a single market with no internal frontiers and in an increasingly globalized business environment, it is essential that measures in support of SMEs are based on a common definition. Lack of a common definition could lead to the uneven application of policies and thus distort competition across Member States. An enterprise in one Member State, for example, might be eligible for aid, while an enterprise in another Member State of exactly the same size and structure might not be eligible. A common definition helps to improve the consistency and effectiveness of SME policy across the EU. Moreover, it is all the more necessary given the extensive interactions between national and EU measures designed to help SMEs in areas such as regional development and research funding. A unique set of issues It is also important to identify which enterprises truly are SMEs because SMEs require assistance that other enterprises do not. Compared with other enterprises, SMEs are confronted with a unique set of issues: ààmarket failures: real SMEs often face market failures that make the environment in which they operate and compete with other players more challenging. Market failures may occur in areas such as finance (especially venture capital), research, innovation or environmental regulations; SMEs may be unable to access finance or invest in research and innovation, or they may lack the resources to comply with environmental regulations; ààstructural barriers: SMEs often must also overcome structural barriers such as a lack of management and technical skills, rigidities in labour markets and a limited knowledge of opportunities for international expansion. SMEs require assistance that other enterprises do not. Given the relative scarcity of funds, it is important to reserve the advantages of SME support programmes for genuine SMEs. With this in mind, the definition includes several anti-circumvention measures. The simplified approach of the present guide should not be used to justify the creation of artificial corporate structures that aim to bypass the definition. For Member States, use of the definition is voluntary, but the Commission invites them, together with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Investment Fund (EIF), to apply it as widely as possible.
8 6 THE OBJECTIVES OF THIS GUIDE The information contained in this guide is primarily designed for two audiences: ààentrepreneurs: entrepreneurs running micro - small or medium-sized enterprises, who are interested in applying for grants or loans aimed at SMEs. These entrepreneurs may also want to know if they satisfy the criteria to benefit from specific legislative provisions or reduced fees for SMEs; ààgovernment officials: European, national, regional and local officials who draw up and run the various schemes, process the applications and ensure that companies satisfy the eligibility criteria for support. The guide explains step-by-step how to determine if an enterprise can qualify as an SME. It also contains a glossary of terms used in the definition or its practical implementation, as well as a model self-assessment form. The form gives an overview of the data that an enterprise has to provide when applying for SME support, and can be used by administrative departments to establish a company s SME status. Since the use of this form is voluntary, Member State administrations are free to adapt its content to suit customary national usage. Registering as an SME: multiple entry points There is no single point of entry to register an enterprise as an SME. Depending on the funding programme and the managing authority (European, national, regional) to which one applies, there will be separate registration procedures. Efforts are being made to enable as much on-line registration as possible. The Your Europe website provides information on funding programmes and will point you to the relevant registration desks when applicable and available One example is the Beneficiary Register on the Horizon 2020 Participant Portal Need more help? A Frequently Asked Questions section is available on the SME Definition website and is regularly updated. All available language versions of this guide can be downloaded from the same website. SMEs may also send questions they have on this topic to:
9 USER GUIDE TO THE SME DEFINITION 7 APPLYING THE SME DEFINITION The average European enterprise employs no more than six people and, without delving further into the details of the enterprise s situation, would be considered an SME. The definition applied here, however, takes into account possible relationships with other enterprises. In certain cases, those relationships, particularly if they create significant ownership links or give access to additional financial or other resources, imply that an enterprise is not an SME. SMEs: 3 categories The SME definition distinguishes between three different categories of enterprises. Each category corresponds to a type of relationship that an enterprise could have with another. This distinction is necessary in order to establish a clear picture of an enterprise s economic situation and to exclude those that are not genuine SMEs. The categories are: ààautonomous: if the enterprise is either completely independent or has one or more minority partnerships (each less than 25%) with other enterprises (see page 16: Am I an autonomous enterprise? ); ààpartner: if holdings with other enterprises rise to at least 25% but no more than 50%, the relationship is deemed to be between partner enterprises (see page 18: Am I a partner enterprise? ); ààlinked enterprise: if holdings with other enterprises exceed the 50% threshold, these are considered linked enterprise (see page 21: Am I a linked enterprise? ). Control An important notion in the SME definition is the concept of control both legal and de facto. Control determines whether or not an enterprise is considered a partner or a linked enterprise. It is not only the capital or shareholdings, but also the control that one enterprise has over another that needs to be assessed. Making an SME calculation Depending upon the category in which an enterprise fits, it may have to include data from one or more other enterprises when making the SME calculation. The result of the calculation will allow the enterprise to check whether it complies with the staff headcount and at least one of the financial thresholds set by the definition (see page 10: Which criteria need to be checked and what are the thresholds and page 15: How do I calculate these data? ). Enterprises that exceed these thresholds are not considered SMEs. Starting from page 25, some useful examples will clarify the possible relationships between enterprises and the extent to which they have to be taken into account in the SME calculation.
10 8 AN OVERVIEW OF THE SME IDENTIFICATION PROCESS The process of determining whether or not an enterprise is an SME consists of four steps: Step 1. Am I an enterprise? The first step to qualify as an SME is to be considered an enterprise. Step 2. Which criteria need to be checked and what are the thresholds? The second step is to identify the qualifying criteria and thresholds to apply. Step 3. What do these criteria cover? The third step is to interpret the meaning of the various criteria and correctly apply them. Step 4. How do I calculate these data? The fourth step is to identify which data need to be considered and assessed against the thresholds, and in which quantities or proportions. For this purpose, an enterprise must first establish whether it is an autonomous enterprise, a partner enterprise or a linked enterprise.
11 9 Am I an enterprise? (Article 1) Step 1 The first step to qualify as an SME is to be considered an enterprise. According to the definition, an enterprise is any entity engaged in an economic activity, irrespective of its legal form. This wording reflects the terminology used by the European Court of Justice in its judgments. In practice this means that the self-employed, family firms, partnerships and associations or any other entity that is regularly engaged in an economic activity may be considered as enterprises. An economic activity is usually seen as the sale of products or services at a given price, on a given/direct market. It is the economic activity that is the determining factor, not the legal form.
12 10 Which criteria need to be checked and what are the thresholds? (Article 2) Step 2 The SME definition takes into account the following three criteria: àà Staff headcount; àà Annual turnover; à à Annual balance sheet total. The category of micro - small and medium-sized enterprises consists of enterprises which: ààemploy fewer than 250 persons; and ààhave either an annual turnover not exceeding 50 million euro, OR an annual balance sheet total not exceeding 43 million euro. Staff headcount And Annual turnover or < or = 50 Million EUR Employ<250 persons Balance sheet total < or = 43 Million EUR
13 USER GUIDE TO THE SME DEFINITION 11 Meeting the staff headcount criterion is mandatory in order to be considered an SME. However, an enterprise may choose to meet either the turnover or balance sheet total ceiling. It does not need to satisfy both requirements and may exceed one of them without impact on its SME status. The definition offers the above choice since, by their nature, enterprises in the trade and distribution sectors, have higher turnover figures than What data do I use? When making the calculations, you should use the data contained in the last approved annual accounts. Newly established enterprises that do not yet have approved annual accounts should make a declaration that includes a bona fide estimate 2 (in the form of a business plan) made over the course of the financial year. This business plan should cover the entire period (financial years) until the entity will generate turnover (see Article 4 of the Annex to the Recommendation on page 40). those in manufacturing. Providing an option between this criterion and the balance sheet total, which reflects the overall wealth of an enterprise, ensures that SMEs engaged in different types of economic activity are treated fairly. By comparing its data with the thresholds for the three criteria, an enterprise can determine whether it is a micro - small or medium-sized enterprise. ààmicro-enterprises are defined as enterprises that employ fewer than 10 persons and whose annual turnover or annual balance sheet total does not exceed 2 million euro; ààsmall enterprises are defined as enterprises that employ fewer than 50 persons and whose annual turnover or annual balance sheet total does not exceed 10 million euro; ààmedium-sized enterprises are defined as enterprises that employ fewer than 250 persons and whose annual turnover or annual balance sheet total does not exceed 50 million euro. 2 See glossary for more info on supporting documents. THRESHOLDS (Art. 2) Enterprise category Headcount: Annual Work Unit (AWU) Annual turnover or Annual balance sheet total Medium-sized < million (in million) or (in million 27 million) Small < million (in million) or 10 million (in million) Micro < 10 2 million (previously not defined) or 2 million (previously not defined)
14 12 3 What do these Step criteria cover? Criterion 1: Staff headcount (Article 5) The staff headcount is a compulsory criterion for determining whether an enterprise can be considered an SME, and if so, in which category the SME falls. If an enterprise does not meet it, it cannot be considered an SME. Not included in staff headcount ààapprentices or students who are engaged in vocational training and have apprenticeship or vocational training contracts; ààemployees on maternity or parental leave. Included in staff headcount The staff headcount criterion covers full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal staff and includes the following: ààemployees; ààpersons working for the enterprise who have been seconded to it and are considered to be employees under national law (this can also include temporary or so-called interim employees); ààowner-managers; ààpartners engaged in a regular activity in the enterprise and deriving financial advantages from the enterprise. What is the definition of an employee? National labour rules apply. These vary from country to country, for instance, for temporary staff working as independent contractors or on hire from an interim employment agency. You should contact your own authorities to establish how your national legislation defines the term employee.
15 USER GUIDE TO THE SME DEFINITION 13 Measuring staff headcount Basic headcount is expressed in annual work units (AWU). Anyone who worked fulltime within an enterprise, or on its behalf, during the entire reference year, counts as one unit. Part-time staff, seasonal workers and those who did not work the full year are treated as fractions of one unit. Criteria 2 and 3: Annual turnover and balance sheet total (Article 4) Annual turnover Annual turnover is determined by calculating the income that an enterprise received during the year in question from the sale of products and provision of services falling within the company s ordinary activities, after deducting any rebates. Turnover should not include value added tax (VAT) or other indirect taxes. 3 Annual balance sheet total The annual balance sheet total refers to the value of a company s main assets. 4 3 See Article 28 of Council Directive 78/660/EEC of 25 July 1978 based on Article 54 (3) (g) of the Treaty on the annual accounts of certain types of companies, (Official Journal L 222, 14/08/1978 P ). 4 For more details see Article 12.3 of Council Directive 78/660/EEC of 25 July 1978 based on Article 54 (3) (g) of the Treaty on the annual accounts of certain types of companies, (Official Journal L 222, 14/08/1978 P ) Chapter 2.
16 14 What happens if I go above a particular threshold? Article 4.2 provides stability and certainty to companies that are close to the ceilings and risk exceeding them temporarily during an exceptional year and/or in volatile markets. Thus, if an enterprise exceeds the headcount or financial ceilings during the course of the reference year, this will not affect its situation and it will retain the SME status with which it began the accounting year. However, it will lose SME status if it goes above the ceilings for two consecutive accounting periods. Conversely, an enterprise may gain SME status if it was previously a large enterprise, but then fell below the ceilings for two consecutive accounting periods. Case No. N (Reference year) 4 N-1 N-2 Status of SME 1 SME Not SME Not SME Not SME 2 SME SME Not SME SME 3 SME SME SME SME 4 SME Not SME SME SME 5 Not SME SME SME SME 6 Not SME Not SME SME Not SME 7 Not SME SME Not SME Not SME 8 Not SME Not SME Not SME Not SME 5 Latest approved accounting period. The purpose of Article 4.2 of the SME definition is to ensure that enterprises that experience growth are not penalised with loss of SME status unless they exceed the relevant thresholds for a sustained period. In line with this intention, Article 4.2 does not apply in the case of enterprises that exceed the relevant SME thresholds as a result of a change in ownership, following a merger or acquisition, which is usually not considered temporary and not subject to volatility. Enterprises that are subject to a change in ownership need to be assessed on the basis of their shareholder structure at the time of the transaction, not at the time of closure of the latest accounts. 6 Therefore, the loss of SME status may be immediate. 6 See section , point (6) (e) of the Commission Decision 2012/838/EU of 18 December 2012.
17 15 How do I calculate these data? Step 4 To work out the data to be considered and assessed against the thresholds, an enterprise must first establish whether it is: ààan autonomous enterprise (by far the most common category); ààa partner enterprise; or ààa linked enterprise. The calculations for each of the three types of enterprise are different and will ultimately determine whether the enterprise meets the various ceilings established in the SME definition. Depending on the situation, an enterprise may have to take into account: ààonly its own data; ààa proportion of the data in case of a partner enterprise; or ààall the data of any enterprise considered linked to it. Any such relationships an enterprise has with other enterprises (direct or indirect) need to be taken into consideration. The geographical origin or the field of business activity of these enterprises is not relevant. 7 The examples in this guide illustrate the extent to which relationships need to be taken into account. Please note that enterprises that draw up consolidated accounts or that are included by way of full consolidation in the consolidated accounts of another enterprise are usually treated as linked enterprises. 8 7 However, in case the link arises through natural persons, the markets on which the enterprises operate are a determining factor. 8 Please see glossary for more info on consolidation.
18 16 Am I an autonomous enterprise? (Article 3.1) Definition An enterprise is autonomous if: à àit is totally independent, i.e. it has no participation in other enterprises; and à àno enterprise has a participation in it. Or à àit has a holding of less than 25% of the capital or voting rights (whichever is higher) in one or more other enterprises; and/or ààany external parties have a stake of no more than 25% of the capital or voting rights (whichever is higher) in the enterprise. Or ààit is not linked to another enterprise through a natural person in the sense of Art AN AUTONOMOUS ENTERPRISE IS NOT A PARTNER WITH OR LINKED TO ANOTHER ENTERPRISE (SEE ART P.35) see pages 25, 26 and 29 for examples of indirect partners My enterprise is totally independent NOTE It is possible to have several investors each with a stake of less than 25% in an enterprise and still remain autonomous, provided these investors are not linked to each other as described in Am I a linked enterprise? on page 21. If the investors are linked, the enterprise may be considered a partner or linked enterprise, depending on its specific situation (see page 18: Am I a partner enterprise? and page 21: Am I a linked enterprise? ). Or <25% <25% Other enterprise My enterprise holds less than 25% (capital or voting rights) in another And/or My enterprise Another enterprise holds less than 25% in mine
19 USER GUIDE TO THE SME DEFINITION 17 Establishing the data to consider (Art. 6.1) If an enterprise is autonomous, it uses only the number of employees and the financial data contained in its annual accounts to check if it respects the thresholds mentioned in Art. 2 of the definition. Exceptions (Art. 3.2 (a-d)) An enterprise may still be considered autonomous, and thus as not having any partner enterprises, even if the 25% threshold is reached or exceeded by any of the following types of investors: ààuniversities and non-profit research centres; ààinstitutional investors, including regional development funds; ààautonomous local authorities with an annual budget of less than 10 million euro and fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. One or more of the above investors may individually have a stake of up to 50% in an enterprise, provided they are not linked, either individually or jointly, to the enterprise in question (see page 21: Am I a linked enterprise? for the notion of linked enterprise). ààpublic investment corporations, venture capital companies and business angels 9 ; 9 See glossary. The financial involvement of business angels in the same enterprise must be below euro. EXCEPTION AN ENTERPRISE CAN STILL BE RANKED AS AUTONOMOUS IF ANY OF THE FOLLOWING TYPES OF INVESTOR HOLDS 25-50% OF ITS CAPITAL OR VOTING RIGHTS Venture Capital Company 25-50% University 25-50% Institutional Investor 25-50% Small Autonomous Local Authority 25-50%
20 18 Am I a partner enterprise? (Article 3.2) This type of relationship describes the situation of enterprises that establish certain financial partnerships with other enterprises, without one exercising effective direct or indirect control over the other. Partners are enterprises that are neither autonomous nor linked to one another. Definition An enterprise is a partner enterprise if: à àthe enterprise has a holding equal to or greater than 25% of the capital or voting rights in another enterprise and/or another enterprise has a holding equal to or greater than 25% in the enterprise in question; and ààthe enterprise is not linked to another enterprise (see page 21: Am I a linked enterprise? ). This means, among other things, that the enterprise s voting rights in the other enterprise (or vice versa) do not exceed 50%. Examples involving indirect partners are provided as of page 25. PARTNER ENTERPRISES Other enterprise My enterprise holds minimum 25% (capital or voting rights) in another = or >25% And/or = or >25% My enterprise Another enterprise holds minimum 25% in mine
21 USER GUIDE TO THE SME DEFINITION 19 Establishing which data to take into account (Art. 6.2, 6.3 and 6.4) With respect to partner enterprises, the enterprise in question must add a proportion of its partner's staff headcount and financial data to its own when determining its eligibility for SME status. This proportion will reflect the percentage of shares or voting rights whichever is the higher that are held. For example, if an enterprise has a 30% stake in another enterprise, it adds 30% of the partner enterprises' headcount, turnover and balance sheet total to its own figures. If there are several partner enterprises, the same type of calculation must be done for each partner enterprise situated immediately upstream or downstream from the enterprise in question. In addition, the proportionate data of any enterprise that is linked to any of an enterprise s partners need to be taken into account. Data of a partner to a partner, however, are not to be considered. (See example 2 on page 26). Case of public bodies (Art. 3.4) An enterprise is not an SME according to the definition if 25% or more of its capital or voting rights are directly or indirectly owned or controlled, jointly or individually, by one or more public bodies. The reason for this stipulation is that public ownership may give certain advantages to enterprises, notably financial, over other enterprises that are financed by private capital. In addition, it is often not possible to calculate the relevant staff and financial data of public bodies. The types of investors listed on page 17, such as universities or autonomous local authorities, which have the status of a public body under national law, are not covered by this rule. The total holding by such investors in an enterprise may add up to a maximum of 50% of the enterprise s voting rights. Above 50%, the enterprise cannot be considered an SME. Further data may be required on a case-by-case basis (e.g. consolidation by equity) to establish the relationships between the enterprise to be assessed and potential partner or linked enterprises.
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